Just when I thought the hysteria over MPs’ expenses couldn’t get any worse, George bloody Carey wades in with an opinion as well. In the News of the World of all things, though at least that suggests he finally knows his place.
Not only are his observations pretty vacuous, they’re not particularly accurate either. Maybe matching the complexity of his thinking with that of his readership, he buys into the idea that the “clawing greed” at the heart of Westminster is a recent development, the “straw that finally breaks the camel’s back”. Whereas a cursory glance through the history books shows that the camel has been carrying this particular straw for a great many centuries. A 1986 episode of Yes, Prime Minister (as topical as it always was) had Sir Humphrey getting a 43% pay rise through Parliament by disguising it as expenses; that was the Civil Service, but the principle is the same and it demonstrates that clawing greed goes back at least to the Thatcher era. (I know! It’s bold and daring of me to associate Thatcher with greed. But I’ll stand by it. Though Carey might be reluctant to agree since Thatcher was behind his appointment as Archbish.)
Indeed, back when the reigning monarch wielded political power, one of Parliament’s only real areas of control was in money. Monarchs who needed money essentially did what MPs do now – they fiddled their expenses. Look at how Henry VIII justified the diversion of money that had been going to the Catholic church.
So it’s not that the expenses issue is a new one. Nor, to be honest, is it an issue that any independent review of the system is going to solve – you change the system, people will find a new way to get round it. No, the reason – the only reason – that MPs are being targetted by media, former Archbishops everyone who listens to them, is that we’re in financial difficulties and people need somebody to blame.
Lord Carey’s comments on moral authority might have been more pertinent if he had pointed out that the moral vacuum doesn’t lie at the centre of Westminster, it’s something we’re all responsible for. Fiddling expenses, or taking advantage of the system (I think we’ve realised there’s precious little difference) isn’t just a thing that MPs do – it is the way countries, businesses and individuals “play the game”. Ask any accountant. Most people who file a tax return will have done some creative accounting, especially in the area of expenses, without necessarily breaking a single rule.
Of course, MPs are much easier to hate for it because our taxes pay their expenses. But it’s a drop in the ocean compared to other things our taxes pay for – illegal wars, arms, utterly ill-judged reforms of the education system – and I know which one irritates me more. And let’s not forget, it’s ultimately our taxes which pay for other people’s tax shortfalls when they claim back for that “business dinner” with their “business partner”.
Somebody, somewhere, is filing an honest tax return and bearing the brunt of a whole load of slightly fraudulant accounting.
Okay, MPs are supposed to lead. They’re expected to set an example. Or so the media keeps telling us, though I’d have thought they should be setting an equally good example given their sphere of influence; perhaps we can also have an independent investigation into journalists’ expenses? (They could see what they could dig up on Lord Carey while they’re at it.) But anyone who wants to start talking about moral accountability ought to be very careful indeed that they’re not part of the system they’re criticising – because the problem doesn’t start with MPs, and it certainly doesn’t end there either.